what if no one was watching

Although I’ve lived in three different countries and worked for long periods of time in dozens of others, I had never spent a lot of time around young children (other than my own, of course, in the last five years).  I certainly never paid much attention to child development or early education. I’ve read here and there about child development in different countries, and parenting theories, but I did most of that reading early on in parenthood, and now I don’t care as much – I simply try to do the best I can within the narrow set of philosophies that Bubelah and I have adopted and treat as gospel (the importance of play as taught by Waldorf schools, promoting reading and storytelling, and a very low-pressure approach to achievement, i.e. letting them find their own pace).  But I don’t have a good understanding of how other people in my community raise their kids, let alone how parents in other cultures in the US or in foreign countries do it.

One of the aspects of our Western – particularly American – society that troubles me is the community ideal that focuses on what people “are” in terms of their work. Children are asked “what do you want to be when you grow up?” by well-intentioned adults as if the goal of life is to find a profession.  Nobody ever asks kids what they want to be when they grow up with the expectation of hearing “happy” or “curious” or “living near a beach.”  Schools promote the idea of education as a “path” leading to the mythical job-guaranteeing “college” and then to a “secure” job with a multi-national corporation offering sick-care benefits and a carefully directed “retirement plan” in which the company forces you to save your money in funds they selected while they squeezed you over forty years for ever more time and ever less money.

Two thoughts:  first, my quotation marks key is starting to creak, and second, this current model of life in modern Western society is going to be unpleasant to the great majority of people. Many people may not recognize it as unpleasant, and will pay great attention to attending University X and getting a job with Megacorp Inc. all the while going home to sit in front of their 52″ widescreen and watch people who – if nothing else – are actually pursuing their dreams in the 21st century version of gladiator combat, American Idol.  And that’s something that bothers me increasingly.  I hate the stupidity of shows like American Idol (which I have never seen – I’m judging based on commercials) but I’d rather see my daughter singing “classic” songs from Toni Braxton on American Idol than hunched over a keyboard on the 3rd floor of a 5 floor office park building with the gentle flickering of fluourescent lights above her.  I’d rather see my son working as a park ranger than trudging back and forth to a job he hates so he can afford “necessities” like a gym membership and a subscription to The Economist.

I don’t meant to rant. I just wonder how much of what we “do” – meaning our work, not what we REALLY do – is driven by the idea that someone is watching us.  There are expectations everywhere: not to let down parents, relatives, friends, our schools, our community, our spouses, our children and even ourselves.  But why would anything be a “let down”?  I think that often the let down is solely internal.  I have no doubt that if I was able to maintain a reasonable lifestyle – meaning healthy food, a home, health insurance, clothing, etc. – I could do whatever I wanted without disappointing anyone.  If I switched tomorrow to being a sanitation worker/blogger, would that “let down” anyone?  It might disappoint the self-constructed mental image I have of myself, that society has contributed to, as an “educated” person who shouldn’t do manual labor.  But what would I do if no-one was watching?  What would you do?  I would argue that based on the large amount of pharmaceuticals and their heavy dosage of reality TV in America that many people are attempting to medicate themselves and their brains into not pursuing this mental line of questioning.  I’ve certainly been guilty of that myself (although I substitute movies for reality TV).

If I am honest with myself, I’d agree with an offhanded comment made by the comedian Bill Burr on (I think) Doug Benson’s podcast. He said nobody is sitting in a cubicle working on spreadsheets because they dreamed of it as a child. Nobody’s getting “filled up” by that work.  And life’s a compromise, in many ways.  Many people are happy to exchange their time for money so they can buy an iPad or a Roku.  I’m fully engaged in that compromise as things stand today.  Maybe I still will be in five years.  And maybe the goal of children in this world is to live like characters in “Defending Your Life” (one of the best movies I’ve ever seen, watch it if you haven’t seen it).  Parents do the best they can to provide a sturdy, well-built diving board for their children to leap off of, but once kids hit the water they have to swim.  The trick will be to learn to swim without fear, using whatever stroke is best for them, and not to worry that anyone is watching that they do it the “right way.”